The New Verizon | Interview with Kambiz Hemati
Kambiz Hemati, Creative Director of Retail Experience Design at Verizon has created some of the most impressive retail concepts around. To be specific, flagship stores, design prototypes, and retail strategies for companies like Nike, Starbucks, BCBG, just to name a few. Now leading the brand experience design of telecommunication conglomerate Verizon, we delved into Kambiz’s long history in retail and where he first discovered his passion and love for the industry.
“I was born in Iran and grew up in Switzerland, “explains Kambiz. “My family was always traveling; we went to a lot of stores, and shopped a lot, always trying to find unique pieces from each place. I grew up in boarding schools, and my friends were from many different countries and very international. People spoke multiple languages around us, and there, I found a thirst for travel, discovery, trying new restaurants, different food and finding new stores. Since I was a child, I wanted to be an architect or a filmmaker. When I came to the US, I went to architecture school but was never really interested in designing big buildings. I was more into storytelling and intimate spaces – getting into details such as how people interact with a space or how it makes them feel. I liked the fact that everything is always evolving in retail. You’re telling the story of a brand and, every project ends up really different.”
Starting out in his career, Kambiz landed a design concept at Fila Sport, where the CEO would end up choosing his design over numerous big architectural firms. Two months after completion, he received a call telling him that his new store was #1 in the US sales. This immediately propelled Kambiz into the interactive world of retail design.
“I went on to do about 56 stores for Fila, which is how I started my first design studio.”
As Kambiz moved forward with his own firm, the ideas of education, learning and storytelling continued to be at the forefront of his work. He also focused on following his passions of going back to school for both graphic design, digital filmmaking and film production design.
“For about four years, I was doing design projects, commercials and short films. I also did a few feature films, but really just for fun. At the end, for me, it all comes down to storytelling. If you look at a film, there is the vision of the director, a story which is the script, and the need to create a world around that. When we look at brands, they have merchandise and/or services to sell, and you are trying to tell the story for the brand. You are essentially creating a house for a brand.”
Kambiz then moved to BCBG which would land him to Paris in the process. From there, he went on to Starbucks to “update the whole look and feel of the stores, make them more localized, less cookie cutter, and more eco-friendly and sustainable” – something which Kambiz is extremely passionate about.
Nike liked what Kambiz was doing at Starbucks and wanted to do something similar – completely redesign the original NikeTown stores. And he did. Then Verizon called.
“I thought [Verizon] was interesting because it was an industry that I had never worked in before. A new team was put together and there was a clear mandate to change the look and feel of the Verizon stores. That’s really what made me come back to New York, and I have been really happy here; it’s a very interesting moment to be at Verizon.”
“When people work in a certain industry, they tend to only look at their competitors.”
With the unique mix of new team members, bringing people from different industries and backgrounds seems to be guiding Verizon into a new way of thinking for brand experience and retail design.
“When people work in a certain industry, companies tend to only look at their competitors. Then what happens is you see that they all start to look alike. I always felt that it was more important to take inspiration from other places. I get my inspiration from coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and brands I like such as Equinox, Blue Bottle Coffee, Soul Cycle, Bonobos, Warby Parker, the Ace Hotels and even the world of film, art and entertainment”.
In the way that consumers see industry brands following or setting trends, Kambiz believes that the ones that are leaders in their field have a responsibility and opportunity to influence.
“When I was at Starbucks, a lot of what we did, many of our competitors copied. I have always felt that if you are number one in your industry, you have the responsibility to set the direction. When we started initiatives to save water and save electricity, a lot of people started to copy us but that was good! It’s great for the environment and it’s the right way to do business. When I look at Verizon, for example, we are the number one wireless provider with the best network, so I want us to also be leaders in design with the best stores around.”
“If you are number one in your industry, you have the responsibility to set the direction.”
With all that is happening at Verizon, including a brand-new office in Tribeca, we were curious as to what that would mean for the brand’s retail development concept.
“I cannot be specific about it, but what I can tell you is that we are putting emphasis on products and services. Sometimes you look at a store and you see that the designer was so in love with what she or he was doing, versus what the nature of the store experience should be. When you see too much architecture, too many types of fixtures and not enough brand storytelling, it’s a bit of a failure. For us, it’s important that when you walk into a store, the architecture and everything else takes a supporting role to our merchandise and services. We want to clean up the space, make it modern, simple and have less –but more premium- materials, colors and finishes, so that one can clearly understand what we offer and how we do it better than anyone else. We want the ease of shopping and above all, a more human centric approach.”
Kambiz is conscious of the type of shopping customers do when walking into a Verizon store. He focuses on their experience and their needs rather than trying too hard to be ‘on trend’ or push traffic.
“People come to the store because they know what they want, and they have a certain connection to our brand. What we want to do is make the shopping experience really easy, and more tied with the way people shop online. I see so many companies trying to bring technology into the store, but we already have technology, so in a way we don’t have that issue. We need to make our stores more human, explain how we connect people to each other. We want to make technology more accessible, more straight forward, and easier to understand. We want it to be less about technology and more about our customers.”
“It was like with Steve Jobs at Apple, when he announced the release of the first iPod: it wasn’t about technology jargon, but about putting 1,000 songs in your pocket. It connected on a human level.”
“We want to make the shopping experience more human…”
Many retailers today are afraid of e-commerce. As a technology company, Verizon has an interesting symmetry between e-commerce and the in store experience.
“Most of our customers do their research online, prior to entering the store. So when they come in, we don’t really want to tell them to go and interact with a touch screen. They walked into the store for a reason. They know what they want and have done the research. They want a premium experience, they want to touch and feel the product. We can’t forget this because there is a tendency by some retailers to try to bring the web to the store, which doesn’t make sense because if they come to the store, it is to have a tactile experience that is not possible online.”
With the influx of new technology in stores, personal customer service can sometimes be overlooked. Brands get overly excited about the latest technology trend and sometimes incorporate these into stores without thinking if they actually benefit the consumer. Whether technology is an opportunity or a challenge, Kambiz takes a more low-key approach.
“Everyone is talking about technology and omni-channel, and there is almost like a big panic. For me, it’s about going back and looking at how shopping has evolved, how new generations shop today, and then bring those concepts into the store. So, with that principle, I’m looking to bring into stores more than a shiny new object that either breaks down, or doesn’t get updated, or becomes obsolete. It’s more about updating the stores, by introducing the advantages of the online experience. There is nothing worse than going into a store and seeing a non-functioning piece of technology.”
They want a premium experience, they want to touch and feel the product”
In a world constantly focused on the latest trends and technologies, Kambiz’s way of looking at what stores should be is extremely refreshing – creating better and smarter ways to shop.
“If you want a touch screen, you can have it at home. If you want to shop from an iPad, you can do it from your couch. I think we should look at the new ways people shop, and how it saves them time, how it’s easier, and how convenient it is in our fast paced world. We did some research that showed that customers do not want to talk to someone right away. They don’t want someone hovering, they have all of the information and feel that they may even know more than the sales associate, so they want to spend some time and experience the product in person. And that’s not a problem. I think allowing the store to be more shoppable, not hiding things, making smart recommendation, and showing the selection in an easy to find manner, is how you make the store more aligned with online shopping.”
Having a self-guided experience is just as important in the stores as it is online. There needs to be added elements that allow for an easy journey throughout the space.
“Let’s say you go to iTunes or Spotify, the technology will tell you that if you like one song, you may want to look at some other similar songs. Then you click. That doesn’t happen in physical stores but it could. How do you bring that experience into the store? As you touch one product, other suggestions are given that you didn’t even know about. That’s how to go to the next level of physical retail. It’s easier said than done, but we’re working on it.”
“Instead of looking at technology, I think we should look at the new ways people shop.”
Kambiz has always been able to follow his interests and passions, leading into his personal life as well.
“I spend a lot of times going to stores, shopping and studying the latest in retail trends. My mother always jokes with me because I make a living doing what I loved to do as a kid. I visit shops with my wife who is a retail operations expert. She looks at customer service and I look at design, and we compare notes. We also visit LA regularly, where I own a coffee shop called “Love Coffee Bar”. I started it because I always wanted a design studio, with a social coffee component. It is five minutes from the beach, and everything I love about California: bright, coastal, diverse, open and easy going, dog friendly with amazing coffee and unpretentious service. We have a stamp that says “____ deserves love”, and put the name of the customer on the underline of every cup. People take pictures of these and generate lots of buzz on social media. I also patented the phrase “Coffee Deserves Love” but now we use it for customer’s names, their loved ones, their pets, favorite cities, causes, and the list goes on… It’s great to look at our Instagram account and see the shared pictures and experiences – all user generated and just how creative people can be!”
When moving the discussion to favorite projects and personal endeavors, Kambiz highlights the excitement he feels in having been able to work in so many different industries, always following his passions, and what he has learned along the way.
“I have been very lucky in my career, I have worked with really smart people, and every lesson I have learned from one brand I have applied to the next one. I like the idea of experimentation, not being afraid to make mistakes, and trying new things. It’s exciting to watch all the stores I have worked on evolve and change over time.”